DEWEY’S MARTIN BIENENSTOCK: PARTNERSHIP, PROFESSIONALISM AND WHAT TO TELL THE KIDS

This is the second in a series profiling Dewey & LeBoeuf’s former leaders. Martin Bienenstock (University of Pennsylvania, B.S., Wharton School, 1974; University of Michigan, J.D., 1977) was heralded as “one of the most innovative, creative restructuring attorneys in the country” when the Dewey & LeBoeuf spin machine put him at the center of an April 21, 2012 article in The New York TimesHe seemed to be the perfect candidate to save his firm.

One item that probably impressed NY Times’ readers was his presence on the Harvard Law School faculty. That credential showed up on the firm’s Private Placement Memorandum for its 2010 bond offering, too. According to the school’s website, he taught the Corporate Reorganization course during the spring term 2012.
Apart from imparting substantive knowledge, he — like any educator — is also a role model for students. In that respect, what have future attorneys been learning from Bienenstock?

What does partnership mean?

Every law student learns the basic concepts: partners owe each other fiduciary duties; they share risk, gains and losses; they’re accountable to all other partners. But theoretical partnership principles played out much differently in Bienenstock’s firm after he joined Dewey & LeBoeuf and its Executive Committee in November 2007.

—  Multi-year compensation guarantees went to some partners, including Bienenstock, but their pay didn’t depend on performance. Some partners say they were unaware of the scope and magnitude of such deals until an October 2011 partner meeting.

—  Partner income spreads reportedly grew to more than twenty-to-one. In “Spread Too Thin,” Patrick McKenna and Edwin Reeser describe the destabilizing effects of that ubiquitous big law trend.

—  A 2010 bond issuance obligated future partners to payments of at least $125 million, starting in 2013 and continuing to 2023.

—  Top partners, including Bienenstock, thought they were making great sacrifices when the firm missed its income targets in 2011: they “capped” themselves at $2.5 million and took firm IOU’s to make up annual shortfalls from their guaranteed amounts. Continuing strategies that mortgaged the future, Dewey & LeBoeuf planned to dedicate six percent of its income from 2014 to 2020 to repay those IOUs.

—  Questions have surfaced about the accuracy and sufficiency of the firm’s financial disclosures to fellow partners and third parties.

What does professionalism mean?

After Steven H. Davis left his management position, the Dewey & LeBoeuf spin machine put Bienenstock center stage as the go-to person who could work a miracle. Maybe it would be a “prepack” – a prepackaged bankruptcy that would allow the firm to shed some debts and become more attractive to a merger partner.

Maybe it would be a traditional merger.

Maybe, maybe, maybe.

One thing Bienenstock made clear throughout: “There are no plans to file bankruptcy. And anyone who says differently doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”

Ten days later, he and members of his bankruptcy group were on their way to Proskauer Rose.

Parsing Bienenstock’s statement about a bankruptcy filing is akin to dissecting President Clinton’s response to questions about his sexual encounters with a White House intern: “It depends on what the meaning of is, is.”

What does leadership mean?

Did Beinenstock have an actual plan for the firm’s survival or did chaos better serve the economic interests of a few top partners? Was he personally committed for the long haul or arranging his own exit? Was anyone really in charge?

Those questions went unanswered as speculation and uncertainty swamped the firm: One-third of the firm’s partners gone by the end of April? A memo invites others to build their own lifeboats, but attorneys and staff should keep working diligently for clients? Use personal credit cards for client copying charges? No mailroom? No IT? Why do senior partners keep asking for empty packing boxes?

Leadership is needed most in times of crisis. As Dewey & LeBoeuf’s Office of the Chairman went from four to three to two to one to none, leadership was nowhere to be found.

Accepting responsibility

When asked who or what was to blame for Dewey’s demise, Bienenstock demurred: “[N]o one saw the new world coming.”

Except plenty of other people did.

Were any of the summer or permanent associates whom Dewey stiffed Bienenstock’s former students at Harvard? If so, their real life experiences of the past three months taught them more about partnership, professionalism and leadership in some big firms than Bienenstock or anyone else could have communicated in years of classes. The question now is whether Bienenstock will be on Harvard’s faculty list next year.

A BETTER ALTERNATIVE OR A LEAP FROM THE FRYING PAN?

Thirty years ago, New York was a scary place for me — mostly because I’d never been there. Midwestern curiousity led me to interview with Cravath, Swaine & Moore’s on-campus representative.

I’d heard that its road to success was the toughest. Rumors circulated that it hired twenty new attorneys for every one or two it might promote to equity partner eight or more years later. Not surprisingly, most of my fellow Harvard students regarded Cravath as the quintessential competitive sweatshop — a characteristic that many of my peers actually found attractive.

Not me. I went elsewhere because, in those good old days, there was an elsewhere to go. Cravath is probably not much different from what it was back then. It’s just that most of the biglaw world has followed its example. As other top-50 firms tightened equity partner admission requirements, Cravath just kept doing what it had always done.

Why did firms emulate Cravath? Law student lore made it the best by some undisclosed criteria. In retrospect, I think money had a role. Even back in 1980, it was one of a very few firms where advancement to equity partner meant wealth that was immense, at least for a lawyer.

According to the first ever listing of the Am Law 50 in 1985, Cravath ranked 2nd in profits per partner with $635,000. For those behind it, the descent was steep: the #10 firm was under $400,000; #30 was $255,000; #50 was $170,000.

Cravath blazed a trail to riches that now accompany those who reach biglaw’s summit: average equity partner profits for the entire Am Law 100 exceeded $1.26 million last year.

But Cravath remains different. Most of biglaw moved to two-tier partnerships and eat-what-you-kill systems where a few key metrics — billings, billable hours, and leverage ratios — now determine individual equity partner compensation.  Cravath’s single-tier model has reportedly remained lock-step: admission to its partnership means fixed financial rewards over an entire career without regard to individual books of business.

I don’t know if Cravath’s lawyers as a group are any happier than attorneys in other big firms. But the firm is now courting its Generation X’ers. According to the Wall Street Journalpartners in their late-30s and early-40s have “taken a more pro-active approach, building new relationships and handling much of the work that historically would have been taken on by partners in their 50s.” (WSJ, May 28, 2010, C3)

Referring to Cravath’s deferential culture in which young partners traditionally forwarded big deals to older colleagues, the article notes that senior partners have nurtured the new environment that gives younger lawyers earlier name recognition.

Why has it worked so far?

“The older attorneys didn’t mind, partly because the pay they received didn’t get cut as a result,” the Journal observes.

In other words, lock-step allows elders to step out of the spotlight without hits to their pocketbooks.

In the current biglaw world, Cravath’s experiment is risky. Will young partners remain loyal or use their newly gained client power to pursue financial self-interest elsewhere? Will Cravath be forced to modify or abandon lock-step so that it can retain young partners controlling clients and billings?

I don’t know. Equally significant, I suspect those most directly affected by what the article characterizes as a “sea change at one of the best-known and most conservative of white-shoe law firms” don’t know, either.

And what does it mean for new associates trying to understand how this affects the firm’s culture and their own career prospects?

Ah, the things I didn’t think to consider when I was a second-year law student looking for a job about which I knew almost nothing.

Fortunately, students are wiser now, right?